Abstract Expressionism: 1940’s America
To art critic, Clement Greenberg, the most essential characteristic in judging art was form. Although his rival Harold Rosenberg argued that form was not the only aspect to view in art, Greenberg was still viewed as an important and noteworthy critic. American Abstract Expressionism left a lasting impression on many critics during the time. The art of this movement was highly charged with emotional expression and strong statements that were felt by the art community. Greenberg could not, often consider an artist’s political stance, and left much of the importance on the artist’s statements out of his critical claims. However, Greenberg did see the technique and form in an objective manner, and highlighted the artists’ ability to stand his test to what he deemed great art. Abstract Expressionism was the first major movement that American artists claimed and won over many in the global art communities.
Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman were two artists, part of the Abstract Expressionist movement, who were considered to be “color-field” painters. Rothko’s geometric rectangles appeared to be floating from the background of his paintings; are examples of the use of suspended colors in a field of view. For Rothko, his paintings were meant to induce meditation or to allow the viewer to partake on a personal reflective journey. One of the major aspects of Abstract Expressionism is that it embodied some of the Surrealists idea of automatism, but took on the philosophies of Carl Jung, rather than Freud. This can be seen with Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Pollock was considered to be an “action painter”, as his application of paint was through the method drip, which allowed the finished results to show the application as an act of the overall painting. This method was also considered to be existentialism, as it stemmed from European philosophies, where the act and struggle between the artist and materials indicated the artists’ impression on their work. With the strong statements of the color-field and action painters, the philosophies, influences, and their own individually developed techniques can be seen.
Greenberg’s idea of abstraction of art can be seen in Pollock’s drip paintings. The method Pollock used was deliberate and far from cliché. The Getty Conservation Institute, in Los Angeles, did a detailed survey into the methods Pollock used in his drip paintings. What they found is that Pollock’s Mural was not created in a single day, as previously thought. Only the white paint on Mural was of water-based paint, the rest of the paint was oil based. It is still unclear whether Pollock used his drip technique. However, this painting was not done in his usual method of the canvas being flat on the floor, and instead shows evidence that it was stood upright during the painting process. The form of Mural was deliberate and one of the largest canvases Pollock had painted.
Harold Rosenberg valued Pollock’s work more than other artists of the time. Rosenberg’s critique of art was based on the creative act of making art. With Pollock’s drip technique, the process of creativity working was a prime example of Rosenberg’s idea of great art. Rosenberg’s rival critic, Greenberg did not agree with his belief in the existential. Greenberg had difficulties in considering artists’ political claims in their works, and even later on he had claimed Pollock to be a Stalinist. Pollock was not the only artist, in this movement, to have strong political ideologies. Many of the Abstract Expressionists’ passions were based on Marxist ideologies. Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, depicts the idea of a philosophy based on the sublime, an idea of humanities’ place among the universe in regards to spiritual understanding. Many of these artists drew their influence from Diego Rivera, Cubism, and surrealism, along with Carl Jung Philosophies of archetypes and some myths that represent the collective conscious mind. Rivera was adamant in his Marxist beliefs, as seen in his controversial fight with the Rockefellers over his mural in the Rockefeller plaza lobby. Jung’s philosophies embodied the collective conscious and promoted a universal and social conscious way of thinking. The political, social and socio-economic ideologies of the Abstract Expressionists also came from this movement being a post WWII era. America suffered the Great Depression, watched the world in war, and became part of the wars. These events lead to many Americans becoming more globally aware than they had been previously. Greenberg’s lack of consideration for the artists’ political statements in their works was a huge opportunity missed by the critic.
Abstract Expressionism left a lasting legacy in the United States. This movement was embraced by the U.S. government as being distinct to America. It is seen as embodying the democracy of the Country as well as reflecting the culture of its people. Abstract Expressionism established itself in America and remained for many years to come.
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